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Know Your Lore: Mists lore and the art of storytelling

Anne Stickney

The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

Mists of Pandaria is coming to a close, along with 2013 -- and what an expansion it was. Every expansion, I like to go through an examine how the storytelling process has changed for better or worse. It's interesting to go back to the old posts on Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, both to see where we've been, and to realize how far we've come. Mists wasn't just a new expansion, it was an entirely new story, with an entirely new cast of characters and a prominently featured race that even long-time players of the game knew very little about.

And it was that race that had a lot of people wondering what kind of expansion we'd end up with. When Mists was introduced, there were plenty of people wondering how the heck a story about a bunch of pandas could be anything but a joke. But Mists didn't just give us the pandaren -- it gave us a whole new perspective on storytelling and gameplay, chock full of innovative new ways to deliver story to players. What did Mists bring that really worked?

New lore

Let's just get this out of the way first: Mists brought us new lore. A lot of new lore. So much new lore, in fact, that I've already written a column about it. But this isn't just about the lore itself, it's about how it was handled within the game. Gone are the days where reading the quest text is your only option for learning the story. Mists was full of quests that featured full out voice acting, cinematic sequences, interactive moments that put you in the place of a character telling a story, emotional highs, lows, and everything in between, all wrapped up in seven zones, two islands and a trip into the capital of the Horde.

We didn't really see all the big name lore characters from history like we did in Wrath of the Lich King -- and we didn't need to. Freed from the shackles of old games, Mists was a breath of fresh air that literally had no limits. The developers could create whatever they wanted with Pandaria. We'd never seen it before, we had no idea what the place looked like, where it had been, or why nobody had ever found it. In between defining Pandaria as cloaked in mists and the Wandering Isle as a separate entity, Mists managed to solve the puzzle of the few panderen that had been rumored to have been seen, while keeping Pandaria itself a complete mystery. It made sense, and it totally worked.

But Pandaria had more secrets to be found -- in game scrolls that presented past lore as not just something to read, but a fun scavenger hunt to complete. The Lorewalkers was a fun, entertaining new faction that wasn't just about reading some books and calling it a day. It encouraged players to get out there and explore the new content to see what exactly Pandaria was all about. It transformed lore from something you sat there and read about into an interactive gameplay experience.

Character development

Pandaria was all about the cast. Even NPCs without any quests at all seemed to have stories of their own, purpose to the endless wandering between one spot and another. As for NPCs with quests, they didn't just tell you to go collect something, they had a purpose to what they were doing. Certainly there were more than a few go-and-kill-ten-deer quests (Nessingwary, I'm looking at you), but there were far more that served a purpose to the story itself. Infiltrate a camp, kill a spy, lay traps for the mantid, find out what those mogu are up to, help a beleaguered village under attack. You weren't just there as some nameless hero to fetch and carry things around, you were put to work, to help, to save.

And each NPC had their own distinct flash of personality. The Klaxxi were bizarre, alien creatures full of snark and disdain that grew into a form of somewhat cold, formal respect. The warriors of the Shado-Pan were as varied and diverse as the players that play this game. The Tillers each had a unique personality, whether it was the downtrodden yet ultimately triumphant Yoon, the fiesty Fish Felreed, or the quiet contemplation of Sho. Pandaria wasn't just full of talking pandas, it was full of people -- unique, wonderful, interesting characters who felt like they had lives before you showed up, and would continue on well after you'd gone.

As for the rest of Azeroth, Mists had plenty of heavy story and character development for many of the big name characters. Vol'jin went from nearly assassinated to triumphant rebel, Jaina Proudmoore became a fiery, impassioned leader and a force to be reckoned with, Anduin grew up just a little more, Vereesa Windrunner moved from stationary character glued to Rhonin's side to full out character in her own right, Lor'themar Theron struggled with conflicting loyalties in leading the sin'dorei and remaining dedicated to the Horde. The list goes on and on. There is no such thing as static NPCs anymore in this new World of Warcraft.

Dailies and story development

Mists also took on daily quests as an effective storytelling tool. Putting aside the actual mechanics of daily questing and simply looking at the stories themselves, they worked. Daily quests gave us ongoing story material long after we'd hit level 90, and continued to do so with every new patch. And, unlike any other expansion before, each faction experimented with new and different ways to deliver the story -- some with more success than others. The interactive tale of Operation: Shieldwall and the Dominance Offensive still remains one of best examples of intertwined quest and story content.

In places like the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, daily quests went from small scale to something much grander, with varying degrees of success. The characters of the Golden Lotus were again, full of personality. The idea of the Vale was a good one in theory -- an entire zone reserved for level 90 characters, as zone content to complete once a player reached max level. It was something that didn't quite work for many players, but it was something new, something different, something Blizzard hadn't tried before.

And that's the real gem about the daily quest system -- it was something entirely new. It may have gotten old as time went on, but it was interesting to see that every patch delivered a slightly different way to experience story. We weren't just playing through a story and seeing what happened, we were actively testing out hundreds of new ideas when it came to story delivery. While some of that may have faltered, it still shows that Blizzard has an infinite number of tricks up its sleeve, and it was definitely a far cry from the repetitive, static nature of dailies in Wrath.

Cinematics and storytelling, in game and out

Mists continued to implement cinematics while questing, but dialed it back a bit from the cinematic-heavy days of Uldum. Cinematics were reserved for only the most important moments, the peaks of the story, instead of with wild abandon. And it took a different angle on cinematics -- instead of showing a character doing something, like Chen visiting his uncle at Stormstout Brewery, it put players in Chen's shoes and let them play through the content as Chen. This really embraced the concept of showing, not telling, to its fullest, and gave players an interesting break from regular gameplay, while highlighting the story in the process.

Outside the game, we were treated to something completely different with The Burdens of Shaohao. This six-part Youtube miniseries was a groundbreaking new way to deliver the story of Emperor Shaohao, not as written word, but as fully-fledged animated, scripted lore. Not quite a cartoon, but definitely not a short story, Burdens took the Emperor's tale and gave it new life with an easily digestible bit of tantalizing lore and a breathtaking soundtrack. We have yet to see if we'll see any more of this type of material -- but with the number of stories left untold on Azeroth, this method is ripe with possibility.

As for written stories, Mists delivered another round of short stories on the website as well. This time, instead of covering leaders as with Cataclysm, Mists tackled the various factions of Pandaria. It told the tales of the pandaren we encountered while we were questing, and gave us even more insight on ourselves and our factions, both Alliance and Horde. Sadly, there weren't as many short stories this time around -- it's a pity, because Pandaria had so many characters, so many stories that could have been told that you would've thought Blizzard would have delivered more material on that front.

Progressive storytelling

But where Mists of Pandaria absolutely shone in every way imaginable was progressive storytelling. Each zone had a specific story to tell, with a beginning, middle and end. The end of each zone led directly into the next. What this ended up with was a tightly woven tale -- the zones had stories all to their own, but each zone's story contributed directly to the larger tale being told about Pandaria itself, and our place upon it. Each new patch delivered content that simultaneously delivered new story, but tied all that new story into that overarching tale.

And working deftly alongside the overarching tale of Pandaria was Wrathion and his legendary quest chain. Legendaries went from class-restricted to a free-for-all ... provided you had the patience and dedication to go out and get it. Wrathion's tale was tied into the main story of Mists, but remained a side story, one which we can only presume we'll see picked up again in the future. And unlike any legendary before it, Wrathion's chain progressed through the length of the entire expansion, serving as both reward for dedicated play, and as a tantalizing ongoing storytelling device.

The overall result of all this attention to storytelling was an expansion that bore very little resemblance to what we saw in Cataclysm. Where Cataclysm's story was literally scattered all over the world and lost between all the raid zones and dungeons, Mists tied everything together into a seamless, almost effortless experience. If you paid attention to what was going on around you in Mists, you could not help but learn the story along the way. In Cataclysm, even if you were trying your hardest to pay attention, it was very difficult to draw a cohesive story from the experience.

Mists vs. other expansions

Trying to compare Mists of Pandaria to the expansions that have come before it is like trying to compare apples and oranges. Sure, they're both fruit, they both grow on trees, but the fruits themselves are as different as night and day. Cataclysm, as innovative as it was in some areas, doesn't hold a candle to what we've seen in Mists -- it simply lacked the heavy emphasis on story outside of the revamped 1-60 zones. Wrath featured story in a prominent way, but lacked the ties between zones, and the overarching tale. Certainly the Lich King provided more than enough story material, but other villains and raids, like Malygos or Ulduar, weren't quite as integrated as they could have been.

But here's what Mists really is -- improvement. Wrath was far better than Burning Crusade in terms of story presentation, and Cataclysm faltered. Mists put Wrath to shame. It took every lesson learned from every expansion prior, and even vanilla itself, and turned them all upside down. No more static NPCs. No more static story. No more fetch-and-carry quests from characters with no spark of life to them at all. No more overdoing it on villain appearances, no more side villain awkwardly thrown in at the end of the expansion. No more scattered stories with nothing to hold them together.

It's exactly the direction that Warcraft needs to take to remain a relevant and interesting game. Sure, the gameplay is cool enough, and new gameplay mechanics, levels and rewards are all well and good. But the one thing that has consistently made Warcraft a game worth watching, from the days of the RTS games to WoW's original launch, has been the characters and stories that captured the imaginations of players. Without that story, Warcraft is just another fantasy MMO. After Cataclysm, I was hoping that Mists would bring that story back on track -- and I wasn't disappointed in the slightest.

But just because Mists has paved the way for new ways of delivering story and lore doesn't mean that it hasn't had its pitfalls. Next week, we'll take a look at the other side of story in Mists -- the moments that lost us, frustrated us, or had us quietly wishing there were more to see.

While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.

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